European Union Committee: Report on 2013-14 (EUC Report) — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:38 pm on 24th July 2014.

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Photo of Lord Tugendhat Lord Tugendhat Chair, EU Sub Committee C - External Affairs 5:38 pm, 24th July 2014

My Lords, as the first speaker after the presentation of the report by the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, I would like to say a few words in praise of him. Being the chairman of this committee is a very formidable undertaking. It means being the ringmaster of a multi-ring circus, but he manages to pay equal attention, as far as I can see, to the work of all the various sub-committees. He says that most of the work of the committee is done by the sub-committees, which certainly may be true, but he is involved in all of them, and that is a very considerable burden.

I also pay tribute to one particular report produced by the main European Union Committee, and that is the report entitled, The Role of National Parliaments in the European Union. Not only was it a very good report, but it is a timely issue and something which the whole European Union would do well to study and consider. I think that, to some extent, we can fairly claim to have been the thought leader in that respect. It has also had the very beneficial spin-off of enabling us to get closer to a number of other parliaments, as well as to the European Parliament. That too has been a great advantage.

I speak as chairman of Sub-Committee C, which deals with external affairs. The noble Lord, Lord Boswell, has already mentioned much of what we do, so I can be very brief. Our main task has, of course, been our report on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which is the most ambitious undertaking of its kind the world has ever seen and one with enormous potential to benefit economic growth on both sides of the Atlantic. I have been very gratified by the response of both of this House and of the Government; my committee shares that view. The report was debated very shortly after its publication on the Floor of the House and the Minister on that occasion provided a very full response to our debate on behalf of the Government. As he is the noble Lord, Lord Livingston of Parkhead, I hope he is enjoying all the activities currently taking place at Parkhead. In both that response and the Government’s formal written response, which arrived last week, we have been very gratified by the extent to which the Government have accepted our proposals and agreed with our recommendations. I will not go into detail, but basically they have accepted pretty much all of them in a very comprehensive and considered reply.

I want to make only one comment, or caveat, perhaps. While I am very pleased that the Government accept our need for a more positive, cross-departmental communications strategy, I should like to see rather more evidence of that being brought into effect. The debate on TTIP is quite an uphill task in this country, but more particularly in some others, such as the United States, France and Germany. The Government’s support for a more vigorous strategy is certainly very welcome and I look forward to its being put into effect.

I also pay tribute to the Commission. We were very impressed by both Commissioner De Gucht and the negotiator, Mr Garcia Bercero. The openness with which the Commission conducts this negotiation, and the way in which it seeks to remain in contact with interested parties in the member states, is very impressive. Given the size of the European Union now, that in itself is an achievement. Of course, we do not know who Commissioner De Gucht’s successor will be, but it is one of the most important portfolios in the Commission. I hope a heavyweight and well qualified Commissioner will be put in charge of that portfolio in the Juncker Commission.

As the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, said, we have now embarked on a study into EU-Russia relations. We are at only the very earliest stages and would be hard-pressed to finish it in the time available, given the length of the Recess and the need to finish early in the new year. However, I can already say we are very concerned by the EU’s lack of shared analysis and common purpose and its inability to reach timely agreement on responses and objectives. We intend to come up with proposals to address these issues after taking evidence not just in this country and from other member states in the Commission, but in Russia, we hope.

In connection with that, we believe it is very important to secure and convey, in our report, a better understanding of how Russia sees its relationship with Europe and how it thinks that might be put on a better footing. We will focus on what happens in the EU, but it is very important that we should hear what the Russians have to say and form a judgment on the approach that they take. We will also consider the EU’s relations with those other states that lie between us and Russia which need to have a good relationship with Russia but which certainly need to have a good relationship with the EU.

Finally, I want to say how much we appreciate the help that we have received throughout the year from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. By that, I mean not just from officials in London but, in the course of our travels, from posts in Brussels and Washington. We have received great assistance of a practical nature. I am certainly conscious of the fact that, given the enormous number of documents that are processed, the speed with which we have, generally speaking, received responses has been impressive.

I raise just one caveat. I think that sometimes the Foreign Office—and this is obviously a matter for Ministers rather than for officials—is reluctant to allow officials to speak on the record. I can understand why that should be, because the matters are often delicate and often controversial. It is very helpful for the committee to receive off-the-record briefings, which are frequently very interesting and perhaps sometimes more interesting than on-the-record evidence, but when we are producing reports, we can take account only of what we hear on the record. Sometimes it would be helpful for gaining a better understanding of the attitude of Her Majesty’s Government if the Foreign Office could be a little less restrictive in that respect.

That said, I feel that, in general, the approach of the Foreign Office to our work, and responses to our reports and what we have to say when we write letters and so forth, is very encouraging and helpful. I have great pleasure in supporting the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Boswell.